In the midst of a dizzying promotional tour, rising pop star Sara Serena from Zaragoza, Spain, met up with Indy staff on the Santa Barbara wharf to talk about her whirlwind career. The next day she would drive to San Francisco, and the following week she jetted to Mexico City and then Bogotá, Colombia, for the Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards.
Charismatic and quick to laugh, the 19-year-old was the picture of teen celebrity style, with jewel-studded hands and glam sunglasses, blocky high heels, and a gold-tinged robe that billowed out in the marine breeze. On her 2017 album, Skyline, she sings about infatuation and heartache in both Spanish and English, and her music videos are sweet, clean, and sparkly. Last year, she topped the Spanish charts with the ballad “Chasing Dragons,” and before long, she plans to overtake the United States music scene as well.
But Sara Serena’s not your average Disney actress turned pop princess. She started singing before she could talk, and by the age of 8 she was training in classical music. “I grew up with Mozart and Beethoven and all those people who no one knows right now,” she chuckled. Before long, she was performing in front of large audiences; in her teens, she began entering voice contests, where she was always known as “the opera girl.”
Sara Serena singing a jota, a centuries-old style of song and dance originating in Aragon, Spain.
She was just 16 when she won the first season of Aim2Fame, a talent competition targeted toward millennials in which contestants from 43 countries competed for online votes. The grand prize? “A seven-year contract and many millions behind it,” explained Michael Karlsson, the CEO of Nexar Productions, who accompanied Sara Serena to Santa Barbara. Nexar is the company behind Aim2Fame, and Karlsson has spent the last two years intensively developing the young singer’s brand, collaborating with a team of songwriters, producers, choreographers, and promoters. The goal is simple: Turn “the opera girl” into a pop megastar.
While she nails the lovesick good girl on stage, Serena is confident and self-possessed in person, with a shrewd sense of humor. She grumbled darkly about U.S. politics and eye-rolled at singers who rely on Auto-Tune to reach the high notes that she’s been hitting with operatic precision for years.
She’s especially irked by all the kudos given to Justin Bieber for singing in Spanish in “Despacito,” which, she maintained, he butchered. As a bilingual artist herself, she hopes to cater to Spanish speakers throughout the United States and would love a Latin Grammy nomination for Skyline, her debut album. (Only during our goodbyes did she confess that this was her first interview in English.)
While other, less savvy teen prodigies might allow the glitz and fame to go to their heads, Serena is realistic about the long hours, teamwork, and PR machinery required to transform a talented singer into an international success. “I have a great team, and they’re working really hard — with me and for me,” she said humbly. “It’s just a great time that we’re having together and we’re doing this ‘Sara Serena thing.’ You know, it’s Sara Serena — it’s not only my name, it’s like a dream that we all have together.”
Out of earshot of Serena, Karlsson confided that the aspiring pop star is far too humble: It’s not often you see such a talented singer who’s able to command the stage so naturally, he said of her abilities. Sara Serena’s songs were written especially for her enormous vocal range by top songwriters, he said, recounting that she brought composer Walter Afanasieff to tears while recording a demo with him. Afanasieff, who coproduced Celine Dion’s Grammy-winning hit “My Heart Will Go On,” allegedly called Serena “the next Celine.”
Karlsson joked, “Now she’s got to live with that.”